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Obama’s Second-Term Options on the Environment

As President Obama prepares to embark on his second and final term, it’s worth exploring what he can do to foster progress on environmental issues and the nation’s, and world’s, energy and climate challenges.
by

Jorge Escudero

on 4 February 2013

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Transcript of Obama’s Second-Term Options on the Environment

As President Obama prepares to embark on his second and final term, it’s worth exploring what he can do to foster progress on environmental issues and the nation’s,
and world’s, energy and climate challenges.
Obama’s Second-Term Options
on the Environment Speed the shift from coal: Cut carbon dioxide from power plants: Getting corn out of gas tanks: The best tool Obama has to reduce coal use is to implement the EPA’s existing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which place limits on mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and other toxic emissions associated with coal. But the coal industry has been pressuring the EPA to reconsider the standard, pushing to weaken regulations that could affect dozens of decades-old, heavily-polluting coal plants like Indianapolis’ Harding Street Station, which has been in operation for 54 years.

For those who think cutting coal is too expensive in a recession, we must recognize the massive, $60 billion annual health costs associated with burning this fossil fuel – everything from cardiovascular and respiratory illness to premature death. “You could pension off all the 80,000 workers in the coal industry for a tiny fraction of the medical bills due to burning coal,” says Burton Richter, a Nobel laureate in physics. Bring more oversight to the gas age. The administration can move forward with planned rules requiring the industry to stem leaks of natural gas into the air (which is easily doable, often at a profit) and can intensify work with China and other gas-rich countries to advance gas extraction without environmental regrets. Here’s another move I outlined in the magazine piece:

Seventeen environmental groups have petitioned the EPA to require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking under the Toxics Release Inventory, an effective, decades-old program that already applies to most industries (including the coal industry). Likewise, contaminated water generated in fracking can be tightly regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Toxic Substances Control Act. “Our job isn’t to promote natural gas – the market is doing that because the stuff is so cheap and abundant,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund and an adviser to the Secretary of Energy. “Our job is to protect air and water supplies.” President Obama can do for power plants what the administration has done for vehicles: require reductions in CO2. The EPA has proposed a Carbon Pollution Standard for Future Power Plants, which would restrict the emission of greenhouse gases, requiring coal plants, in particular, to be more efficient and cleaner. It’s up to the president to move on this proposal and use his executive power to set limits on the amount of carbon pollution new power plants can emit. “There are no indications that the new Congress will be receptive to effective climate legislation,” says Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But [Obama] can do these things without waiting for Congress.” The Renewable Fuel Standard, passed in 2005, may sound like a high-minded environmental program. But pressing U.S. farmers to grow corn for ethanol fuel use is not good green policy. This past year, 40 percent of domestic corn crops have gone into gas tanks, even as a rise in global food prices has hurt the poorest families. And while the idea of growing fuel is a solid one, many scientists argue that turning corn into fuel has proved to be as water- and energy-intensive as drilling for oil. “It is time to take a hard look at the carbon benefits of corn ethanol and its impacts on food prices around the world,” says Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Stop subsidizing the building boom in danger zones: The president and Congress should cut federal subsidies that keep the price of insurance in some high-risk zones (flood plains, coastal areas threatened by rising seas, and regions prone to wildfires) artificially – and disastrously – low.

“If we had never created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the private market would be charging much higher premiums and it would be much more of a deterrent for people living in these places,” says Eileen Fretz, director of flood management at the non-profit, American Rivers. While we’re not likely to completely end government-backed insurance, last June Congress passed legislation that cut NFIP funding for businesses, second homes, and repeat beneficiaries (that is, homes that flooded multiple times). This is a good start, but we need to do more: stop giving taxpayer protection, and indirectly encouraging development, to communities behind levees. We also need to actively protect our most valuable flood protection infrastructure – wetlands, barrier islands, and dune beaches.

Similar opportunities lie in the nation’s wildfire “red zones,” where the government is spending $3 billion a year on wildfire protection. “We ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Ray Rasker, an economist and director of Headwaters Economics. Only 16 percent of private wildland now has homes, he says. “Put climate change on top of new development, and you have a crisis.” He suggests cutting support for construction of at-risk homes, doing away with breaks like the federal mortgage tax deduction. source: new york times ANDREW C. REVKIN performed: www.jorgeescudero.com
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